T alent has never been the sole criterion in the Oscar race. Awards have been granted to sentimental favorites such as John Wayne for 1969's "True Grit" as well as to industry stalwarts whose body of work warranted an award--even if their nominated performances might not. (Think Elizabeth Taylor in "Butterfield 8" or Paul Newman in "The Color of Money.")
In anticipation of Monday's Oscar ceremony, however, The Times asked three prominent acting coaches--Howard Fine, Janet Alhanti and Larry Moss--to size up the best actor and actress and best supporting actor and actress categories solely on the basis of the performances . Here are their responses:
ANGELA BASSETT ("What's Love Got to Do With It")
Fine: It's very difficult to play someone alive and known--especially someone as raw and passionate as Tina Turner. Bassett made Turner her own not through imitation but by finding those parts of the character inside herself. The major mistake the filmmakers made was showing Turner herself at the end, which reminded us of the differences.
Moss: Bassett was a great choice for the role. She has an aliveness as a person, a larger-than-life quality, which rivals the passion of Tina Turner. From the outset, she creates the feeling that her character is pulsating, ready for picking like a big, ripe tomato. She combined great tenderness and vulnerability with a (expletive) quality.
STOCKARD CHANNING ("Six Degrees of Separation")
Fine: The easy choice would have been to "label" the role, to create a superficial one-dimensional East Side socialite. Channing instead gave us a restless spirit, a woman searching for passion and trapped by comfort.
Alhanti: Whenever anyone asks me where the intelligent, witty, sophisticated, vulnerable actresses of the '30s and '40s are, I point to Channing. She's about the only actress working now that has all of those qualities--and this part tapped all of it. Instead of playing the character like a cliche--a brittle, dislikable society woman--she gave us someone fighting for her life. This is the best role yet for her on the big screen.
HOLLY HUNTER ("The Piano")
Fine: One of the first things some actors do is underline the number of lines they have in a script. The more words, they believe, the better the role. In this case, however, Hunter had to communicate without dialogue. Through her eyes and body, she had to make us feel her soul. Hunter has an "animal" essence--you never know what she'll do next.
Alhanti: Hunter's performance was stark, grim, very pilgrim and gothic, and never really made me care about the character. I didn't worry about her, because she was so strong and willful. She was childlike with her daughter, removed from her husband, even wary of her lover. When she finally gave in to him I breathed a sigh of relief--it was like letting air in the room. I also never felt her passion for the piano, which was her history, her voice, her womanhood. When she touched those keys, we should have been taken to another place. I wasn't.
Moss: Hunter is not a great beauty, but her fierce commitment to what she does makes her very charismatic. This was a brave performance, completely self-absorbed. She wasn't afraid of the narcissism of the character, which was a survival technique in a situation beyond her control. I felt Hunter's excitement playing the role. Like Shirley MacLaine in "Terms of Endearment," she knew she was made for it.
EMMA THOMPSON ("The Remains of the Day")
Fine: Thompson combines the best of the British vocal school and American emotional gutsiness. Because she's as strong as (Anthony) Hopkins, so evenly matched, it's a pleasure to watch the two on screen. Thompson's strength is playing high-moral-fiber characters with complexity.
Alhanti: It took a real piece of acting to play a part this restrictive, since Thompson is such a free spirit. She does performance art. She breathed life into the movie for me and put her own stamp--that forthright, chin-up approach to the world--on the part.
DEBRA WINGER ("Shadowlands")
Alhanti: Winger, herself, is down to earth and unguarded, so there was good marriage between actor and character. My only criticism is that she should have played it more polished instead of with a brashness and an offensiveness that turned people off. Not everyone from the Bronx talks that way.
Moss: Winger faced the considerable challenge of juxtaposing the "bull in a china shop" syndrome--not caring what people think--with someone insecure in her value as a poet and a woman. She brought it off beautifully without a trace of sentiment . . . which helped. People don't know what to make of Winger, but she knows what she's about.
DANIEL DAY-LEWIS ("In the Name of the Father")